What is fundamentalism?

by Sara Manasterska 

A couple of days ago, I saw Dan’s post of a Ayaan Hirsi Ali video, in which she was explaining that the willingness of fundamentalists to kill people cannot be only blamed on their destitute situation (for two reasons: 1. not all of the fundamentalists who become terrorists are poor, 2. not all poor people become terrorists).

My immediate reaction was that of scoffing ‘well of course she’s right’, but actually I was being overly dismissive again. Because that bad economic situation contributes to radicalization of many people’s political or religious beliefs is an intuition many people have, and one I would have had not so long ago.

The intuition that “poverty causes people to become terrorists” is a bit true in that poverty may indeed spur a poor Pakistani political science graduate to join a fundamentalist organisation like Jamaat-e-Islami (it is now a more respectable political party) in hopes that it will lead to a creation of a just Islamic state, in which he or she would no longer be poor. The problem is that he or she has to believe in the just Islamic state and its power to make all wrongs right in the first place.

It is the quite obvious that poverty is not what causes fundamentalist movements to form. What happens instead is the following:

A religion that was heretofore taken for granted is confronted with another (foreign, new, reformed) religion. As a result, the religion that to its believers appeared simply obvious and natural becomes the object of intense reflection and deliberation, and is for the first time questioned. Eventually, the religion that was before natural and obvious, is defined, standardised and juxtaposed with the new or other or foreign religion.

This is in fact not just a religious phenomenon, it’s perfectly observable in culture and language (standardisation, anyone?). This is in fact how people adapt to modernity or westernization.

Of course, many different concepts and definitions arise as the result of the reflection and deliberation process. Unless there is such a dominant power involved that could easily impose its own definitions, multiple definitions are allowed to exist. Some of them turn out to be fundamentalism.

If the new, or foreign, or other religion becomes, to put it succinctly, the evil twin of the newly-developed-old religion, we get fundamentalism.

A close observation of numerous movements allowed to create a definition of fundamentalism as having the following characteristics:

1. Moral absolutism

2. Manichaeism, understood as the belief that there is a continuous struggle of good and evil

3. Nativism (not always, propagated for instance in Sri Lanka, the belief that only a Buddhist Sinhalese is the real Sinhalese)

4. The sort of millenarism that presupposes that the believers will actively seek the overthrowing of the existing order, being fundamentally opposed to it (see moral absolutism). If a secular state can be tolerated, we will only have a conservative, not fundamentalist movement. Often, the overthrowing of existing order is seen by fundamentalists as a restoration of mythical golden age.

5. Claims of being the only true, pure version of a religion, other, more liberal versions being “tainted” by modernity, the Western influence, etc

6. But above all, the Enemy. An Enemy is something without which no fundamentalist movement can exist, because the enemy defines the fundamentalist movement and its goals by being everything it negates, despises and seeks to destroy. It’s the modernity, the secular society that tolerates multiple truths (see 1). Because the Enemy represents the absolute evil (1 and 2), it is all right to dehumanize the members enemy groups. Fundamentalists from religions as traditionally pacifist as Buddhism advocate violence against their opponents (like Phra Kitthivuddho from Thailand, who argued that killing communists does not violate the Buddhist prohibition against killing sentient beings, because the communists are less than human).

The enemy must be eliminated; waiting for the respective higher power to mete out divine punishment and restore justice is not enough. A fundamentalists must actively strive to establish the divine order on earth.

Most fundamentalist movements appear in times of rapid societal change. This is not a coincidence: fundamentalism cannot exist without the Other.

(While I didn’t use any specific book while writing this post, I should mention that I’ve been reading a lot of stuff from the Fundamentalism Project, which you can find here, though I mostly focused on Fundamentalism Observed (while a bit obsolete, it is nonetheless a valuable resource). One of the first people who noticed the extent of puzzling similarities between various fundamentalisms is Martin Riesebrodt, especially in his book “Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung. Amerikanische Protestanten (1910-1928) und iranische Schiiten (1961-1979) im Vergleich” aka Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran)

Sendai Anonymous is a guest contributor who blogs regularly at SendaiAnonymous.wordpress.com.  This post has been cross-posted from Sendai Anonymousplease leave Your Thoughts on her post by clicking here and going to her original post’s comments section.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Is that fundamentalism or fanaticism?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Good question, James, you have me puzzled. I’m having trouble seeing thinking of a clear difference between the two.

    • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

      The longer I think about it, the more clear it becomes:

      “fanaticism” is a unambiguously pejorative, polemic term. While it can be used in spoken language, it would be quite difficult to justify the use of such a loaded word in research.

      “fundamentalism” is also a self-reference term used by some groups that are also called “fundamentalist” by researchers. For the same reason, “fanaticism” is a word I’d use to describe a person who *overdoes* religion (as much as anything else, really), while the term “fundamentalism” could be argued to be more precise :)

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    What you’ve said about fundamentalism sounds a lot like the cause of hatred in general and in some cases genocide. There might be some gray areas between harmless fundamentalism and fanatacism, but they do seem somewhat related.

    “Standardization” of a language doesn’t sound like it really requires an “enemy” or someone to hate, but there is definitely some “normalizing” going on.

    • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

      As far as I know, “fanaticism” is not something that used as a descriptive term in research a lot.

      Standardisation does in fact require enemy – the non-standard language speaker. The discrimination faced by people who couldn’t speak standard language in Japan before WWII is something that can only be, well, let’s just call it what it was, bloody barbaric. Even now, the opinion that dialects are somehow incorrect, “tainted” standard languages surfaces from time to time (like, the folk linguistics treatment of black vernacular?).

      Of course, that’s different things, just the mechanism is more or less the same.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Standardisation does in fact require enemy – the non-standard language speaker.

    Really? Do we still have that enemy? Is it really necessary to? I think we can agree that “1+1=2″ and require a standardization for math without having an enemy. “Standardization” is a form of “normalizing” but it doesn’t have to involve “normativity” in the moral sense.

    The discrimination faced by people who couldn’t speak standard language in Japan before WWII is something that can only be, well, let’s just call it what it was, bloody barbaric. Even now, the opinion that dialects are somehow incorrect, “tainted” standard languages surfaces from time to time (like, the folk linguistics treatment of black vernacular?).

    It has happened in the past so all standardization requires an enemy? That doesn’t make sense to me.

    • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

      Really? Do we still have that enemy? Is it really necessary to? I think we can agree that “1+1=2″ and require a standardization for math without having an enemy. “Standardization” is a form of “normalizing” but it doesn’t have to involve “normativity” in the moral sense.

      I should have made myself more clear in the orriginal post. I was talking about standardisation in linguistic.

      (But, with language standardisation, it is extremely unlikely that there won’t be an enemy. Language standardisation occurs with the emergence of a central power that needs the standard language as an administrative etc tool, and as a medium for its ideology. That the non-standard language speaker, who stands in the way of the state in this situation, will not be perceived as an obstacle, and consequently, as an enemy, is something I cannot recall happening with any standardisation I know)

      And nowhere did I say that it requires an enemy *always* – just that in some cases when something that has been obvious and natural becomes the object of reflection, it may in some cases result in such a new system that will require enemies, as is the case with fundamentalisms or almost all language standardisations.

      What you said in your original comment is not entirely clear to me. Of course, hatred and genocide is often part of fundamentalist movements, but rather than a cause, they should be viewed as a result of the process I was explaining in the post. Genocide in itself is not a fundamentalism, and hatred in itself is not sufficient for the emergence of a fundamentalist movement; rather a complex interplay of, among others, religion, reflection upon the religion and group identity, fear, and hatred would be necessary.

      Which is again what I was trying to explain in the original port.

      (In hindsight, the standardisation remark might have been unnecessary; when you’re not a linguist it’s not making things easier at all)

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    This is what you said:

    “A close observation of numerous movements allowed to create a definition of fundamentalism as having the following characteristics:”

    “6. But above all, the Enemy.”

    I read this as saying that these are necessary characteristics of fundamentalism, but I guess you want to say that these are characteristics that tend to be found within fundamentalsm, but not always.

    Which part of my post do you not understand? I said different random things.

    I think we need to be careful about our use of the word “enemy.” Sometimes there is a right way to do things and a wrong way. I don’t think it makes much sense to say you are an enemy even if you do things the wrong way, even if you did something immoral.

    People often take others to be enemies for all sorts of reasons, but I don’t want to legitimize their behavior. I like to communicate with others as well as possible and a standard “normal” method of communication can help sometimes.

    • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

      Sorry it took so long, I was away.

      The reason why I said “above all, need an Enemy” is because according to the definition of fundamentalism to which I subscribe, there is no fundamentalism without an enemy, which the adherents of fundamentalist credo will try to oppose.
      Basically, without enemies you’re just conservative, and not fundamentalist.

      People often take others to be enemies for all sorts of reasons, but I don’t want to legitimize their behavior.

      Talking about sonething, researching it, and defining it does not constitute ligitimisation! No one is saying that it’s morally OK for them to have an enemy, or to dispose of the enemy in a violent way. No one is legitimising anything here, this is purely descriptive.

      I like to communicate with others as well as possible and a standard “normal” method of communication can help sometimes.

      Yes, a “common speech” is very helpful, but can be also marginalising and harmful. All depends on what you do with it.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    sendaianonymous,

    You said

    Talking about sonething, researching it, and defining it does not constitute ligitimisation! No one is saying that it’s morally OK for them to have an enemy, or to dispose of the enemy in a violent way. No one is legitimising anything here, this is purely descriptive.

    My point was that I want to be careful about when the word “enemy” is used and I’m not sure if it is appropriate here. I think you are saying something like, “If we marginalize you, then you are an enemy.” However, that definition is part of the mistaken attitude regarding marginalization that leads to inappropriate behavior.

    When people say, “you guys are inferior in some way,” I don’t think that means they are enemies despite the fact that they are marginalized.

    I am not totally against marginalization. A child who says 2+2=5 is legitimately corrected if told that they are “wrong” at some point. We should marginalize that behavior to that extent (at least sometimes). All of morality threatens to marginalize people in various ways as well (which can lead to the use of coercion), but I don’t want to say they are “enemies” just because they are “wrong.” I think coercion is sometimes legitimate, but not a judgmental coercion. I am not for revenge or vengeance.

    I am perfectly happy with the behavior of Diogenes the cynic who told everyone that he was virtuous and they were inferior in the most important regard (they were not virtuous). He didn’t take things too seriously. He was insulting, but he didn’t make them into “enemies.” There was something about his behavior that didn’t seem too judgmental about his belief that he was “superior.”

    • http://sendaianonymous.wordpress.com sendaianonymous

      I think you are saying something like, “If we marginalize you, then you are an enemy.”

      Nowhere did I say so about religious fundamentalism, and neither do I believe it to be true. The perceived persecution of fundamentalists by the secular state/ other religions / Western influence / colonial power does not constitute an excuse for their behaviour. In some cases, moreover, the persecution is only perceived, but not real.

      I am not totally against marginalization. A child who says 2+2=5 is legitimately corrected if told that they are “wrong” at some point.

      1. Seriously, I think you would benefit by setting the issue of language standardisation aside. It was meant as a thinking-help, from the POV of a linguist.
      2. Correcting =/= marginalisation.
      3. You only correct someone when they’re wrong.
      This means that correcting someone’s non-standard dialect is unnecessary, because in the framework of their dialect they are correct.
      What does this mean in the case of religion? How do you intend to correct people whose religious beliefs you consider “incorrect”? That would require a “correct” version of beliefs, right? How do you propose it should be established? You can’t control what people think, and you can’t force them to change their minds, just because you think they’re wrong (in case of fundamentalism, frankly, is the term “correct” even applicable? Since we know that a non-fundamentalist religion would also be incorrect, as in: not reality-compliant).
      What matters is that the state can control the dangerous tendencies of fundamentalists in such a way that they don’t become dangerous to other citizens, which is all that can with certainty be done. There is no cure for fundamentalism, and you can’t coerce people to agree with you.

      Also, I don’t quite understand your fixation on inferiority/superiority. This is not part of the problem at all.

    • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

      sendaianonymous,

      I was merely clarifying my point of view on the matter and the motivation I have. If you see things differently, that can help us understand the motivation each other has if you tell me more about your viewpoint, but so far you merely say I’m wrong. But you mostly just say I’m wrong for semantics reasons. Given the definitions I use, I don’t think I’m wrong. You are using different definitions than I am.

      Nowhere did I say so about religious fundamentalism, and neither do I believe it to be true. The perceived persecution of fundamentalists by the secular state/ other religions / Western influence / colonial power does not constitute an excuse for their behaviour. In some cases, moreover, the persecution is only perceived, but not real.

      We are talking about what constitutes an “enemy.” People use enemies as an excuse to hurt people. What exactly do you mean by “enemy” if not what I mentioned? They are the inferior/marginalized “other” aren’t they?

      1. Seriously, I think you would benefit by setting the issue of language standardisation aside. It was meant as a thinking-help, from the POV of a linguist.
      2. Correcting =/= marginalisation.
      3. You only correct someone when they’re wrong.

      Many people do think correcting/criticizing is an attack on them and “marginalizes” them. How do you define “marginalization?”

      What does this mean in the case of religion? How do you intend to correct people whose religious beliefs you consider “incorrect”?

      You correct beliefs through non-coercive education, evidence, and argumentation.

      Also, I don’t quite understand your fixation on inferiority/superiority. This is not part of the problem at all.

      That is part of how I understand “marginalization.”

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